WASHINGTON -- President Bush yesterday gave Iraq until noon today to announce and begin a total withdrawal from Kuwait and one week to complete the pullout, or face a ground war.
The ultimatum was quickly followed by a revised Soviet peace plan that was stronger and more specific than the one Iraq had agreed to the night before, but the White House stuck to its own terms.
"Our plan is the marker to meet," spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
At day's end, Iraq hadn't rejected the U.S. plan explicitly but merely denounced it as "disgraceful" and backed the Soviet initiative.
Barring a reversal, this set the stage for a ground war at any time starting this afternoon.
French Defense Minister Pierre Joxe said that if Iraq ignored the ultimatum, the predicted massive and violent allied ground assault would start within "a few hours," the Associated Press reported.
But Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, at the Pentagon, said, "We have not been told to have a ground campaign tomorrow." He added, "We'll achieve tactical surprise, and we think the surprise will be great."
President Bush decided on the ultimatum late Thursday night after he and his top national security advisers concluded that the original Soviet plan was unacceptable. The terms he cited spelled out in detail the U.S. interpretation of what is meant by full compliance with the United Nations Security Council's 12 anti-Iraq resolutions.
With Iraq having been weakened to the point where it had dropped many of its conditions, including linkage with the Palestinian conflict, the United States moved to hasten the process, see all Security Council resolutions complied with and press Iraq out of Kuwait so fast that it would be forced to abandon much of its heavy military hardware.
"I have decided that the time has come to make public with specificity just exactly what is required of Iraq if a ground war is to be avoided," Mr. Bush said.
"Most important, the coalition will give Saddam Hussein until noon Saturday to do what he must do, begin his immediate and unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait. We must hear publicly and authoritatively his acceptance of these terms."
President Saddam Hussein must know, Mr. Bush said, "that he risks subjecting the Iraqi people to further hardship unless the Iraqi government complies fully with the terms."
The U.S. goal was given new urgency, he said, by late word that Iraqi forces were systematically setting fire to oil facilities in Kuwait.
"Indeed, they are destroying the entire oil production system of Kuwait," Mr. Bush said. "And at the same time that that Moscow press conference was going on and Iraq's foreign minister was talking peace, Saddam Hussein was launching Scud missiles."
The White House declared that coalition allies were behind the move after U.S. officials had contacted such governments as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Canada, France, Britain, Egypt, Germany and Italy.
The announcement was made by the United States alone, however, because not all the allies had approved its precise terms by the time of Mr. Bush's statement, Mr. Fitzwater said.
Mr. Bush's initiative, the terms of which were drafted largely by National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and his deputy, Robert M. Gates, appeared aimed partly at easing the Soviets out of the process, while not damaging the U.S.-Soviet relationship.
Rather than have the Soviets appear to be brokering a deal, Mr. Bush's ultimatum made clear to Iraq that the United States and its allies were determined to set the terms, Mr. Fitzwater said.
"Gorbachev is a side-player," he said.
But administration officials said they welcomed Soviet attempts to get Iraq to yield.
Amid signs of discord in the Kremlin, the Soviet position changed substantially overnight from one that a spokesman for President Mikhail S. Gorbachev acknowledged was aimed partly at allowing Mr. Hussein to "save face."
A revised Soviet plan announced yesterday afternoon dropped one of the most troublesome Iraqi conditions -- that all sanctions be dropped after withdrawal was two-thirds complete -- but still insisted on canceling all anti-Iraq U.N. resolutions once it was complete.
This last condition could help to preserve the Hussein regime by allowing it to avoid the prospect of restitution or possible war crimes trials. It would also negate U.S. plans to maintain an arms embargo on Iraq.
Despite Mr. Bush's uncompromising stance, some analysts said the Soviets still could emerge as peacemakers if they persuaded Iraq to accept most of Mr. Bush's terms.
The United States and its allies promised not to attack retreating Iraqi forces and to exercise restraint as long as withdrawal proceeded according to the U.S. terms.
"Any breach of these terms will bring an instant and sharp response from coalition forces," Mr. Fitzwater said.